Lost in the Stacks

thoughts on Latin American literature and film (mostly)

Month: December, 2011

readings: Aira on translation

“Faced with the alternative between becoming translators or alcoholic bums, some at least favored the first option.”

.   .   .

From Varamo by César Aira
trans. Chris Andrews

For JRS

Abstraction, for Jesús Rafael Soto.

fallen, in the forest

Las acacias dir. Pablo Giorgelli (2011, 82′)

If ever a notion of writing formulated while drunk and likely brandishing a firearm sparked a radical change in the way stories are told, it would have to be Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory.’ In an interview with George Plimpton for The Paris Review, Hemingway describes his approach as a series of well-chosen omissions:

I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

I haven’t seen or read anything in the past few years that puts this idea to better practice than Pablo Giorgelli’s exquisite first film, Las acacias (2011). The darling of festivals from Cannes (where it won the Caméra d’Or) to London’s BFI (Best First Film), via the eight or so others that named it their Best Picture, Las acacias has been garnering its well-deserved share of critical attention. Its plot is fairly straightforward: Rubén, who drives a truck for a man named Fernando, has been told to take a load of acacia wood and a woman named Jacinta across the Paraguayan border and into Buenos Aires. He does this, and the movie ends.

Of course, what is omitted from this summary is the stuff of the film itself. Like the fact that Jacinta shows up with her five-month-old daughter, and that Rubén nearly leaves them on the side of the road once they cross into Argentina. And then, of course, there is everything that goes unsaid yet is still vitally present; despite the sparsity of the dialogue, we come to know a remarkable amount about the film’s two central figures. Without any of this being explicitly conveyed, we know that Jacinta occasionally exercises poor judgement when it comes to men, and that Rubén has long since given up on mending his broken relationship with his son. We also know that he is starting to peg his last hope for happiness on a stranger and her baby.

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BsAs at first light

Waking dreamscape: first light in San Telmo.

readings: Oliverio Girondo

YOU CAN JOIN YOUR HANDS

The people say:
Dust,
Celestial,
Sepulchral,
and are left calm,
mollified,
satisfied.

But listen to this cricket,
to the soft rain of night,
of a lunatic existence.

Now is the time for it to sing.
Now
and not tomorrow.
Right now.
Here.
At our side…
as if there were nowhere else it could.

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flowers in the reserva

At the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur in Buenos Aires. Sunday sloth, street markets, children toddling like ducks. Bicycles. A heat so intense that the smell of these flowers took on a physical form.

the road not taken

It’s no secret that I’m terrible with directions. It takes me an inordinately long time to orient myself in a new city, particularly one not organized around a numbered grid, à la New York. But it was a surprise even to me that I managed to get lost inside a building on my way to an academic conference last week.

In my own defense, the structure in question – the Centro Cultural Borges – is as labyrinthine as its name would suggest: in addition to its multiple entryways and escalators that only go to certain wings, I happened to stumble in during the festival of Indian culture, the brightly colored fabrics and silvery trinkets of which turned the Center’s halls into a vertigo-inducing kaleidoscope. When I finally did find the main rotunda, the conference had long since begun, so I did what any responsible person would do under the circumstances. I bagged it, and decided to poke my head into a gallery or two.

Next door to what appeared to be the opening reception of a show of U.S. rock photography, a black and white image on the far wall of a starkly lit and virtually empty room caught my eye. Even from a distance, it had a disconcerting, oneiric quality; up close, its complex texture and manipulation of perspective made it hard to believe that I wasn’t looking at a photo-realist painting. In the foreground, the crisp folds of the riders’ clothing and the mottling of the horses’ haunches stand in stark contrast to the blurred movement of the dogs that flank them. Time, as reflected by the camera’s shutter, is fractured somewhere between the two. In the background, the needles of a lone conifer at the center of the frame are at once sharply defined and veiled in haze, while the two horses grazing side by side behind it appear to occupy two entirely different planes; depth of field is, here, a pliable notion.

The image, captured by Emmanuel Ortiz (b.1961, Argentina) after the eruption at Chaiten in 2008, is part of “Sendas” (“Paths”), a show of the photographer’s work from the past ten years. The exhibit is well suited to its name: each of the nearly fifty prints on display invokes the idea of a path carved out either literally or metaphorically by man and nature. There is the layer of ash that settled on one of the main dirt roads outside of Chaiten that, as it mixed with the falling rain, paved its surface in concrete (again, this dance with time: the simulacrum of progress, indistinguishable from the destructive force that produced it). Then there are the more abstract, though nonetheless physical, variations on the theme: surfaces whose texture once – but no longer – presented an obstacle to their crossing. The Japanese town reduced to rubble in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami; the coast of La Coruña looking like a vast expanse of asphalt after a storm, the difference between sand and sea almost imperceptible following the 2002 oil spill in the region.

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the best-laid plans

A veces, no siempre, leo los horóscopos. Leo todos los horóscopos, y no solamente el que corresponde a mi signo. Por supuesto que no creo en astros ni en presagios. Pero me gusta ver lo imprevisible que puede llegar a resultar la vida de las personas.

Sometimes, not always, I read the horoscopes. I read all the horoscopes, not just the one for my sign. Of course I don’t believe in astrology or omens. But I like seeing how unpredictable people’s lives can be.

Came across this while reading Martín Kohan’s Dos veces junio (2002), a brilliant novel that reflects on the logic – or lack thereof – behind the violence to which Argentina was subjected during the military dictatorship (1976-83). Honing in on one moment in the nation’s history, the summer of 1978, when the collective euphoria of a World Cup win on Argentine soil stood in marked contrast to the personal and political tragedies eating away at the country from within, Kohan uses the language of statistics to test the limits of concepts like order, chaos, and – perhaps most evocatively – fate. In this passage, the narrator’s description of his habitual dissection of the newspaper, I particularly like the reciprocal relationship between order and chaos, or rather, that the promise of one is actually the realization of the other. Not to over-talk it.

’till death do us part

The moon is full tonight
And hurts the eyes,
It is so definite and bright.
What if it has drawn up
All quietness and certitude of worth
Wherewith to fill its cup,
Or mint a second moon, a paradise? -
For they are gone from earth.

- Philip Larkin

Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier (2011, 136′)

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice, Dear Reader, that Melancholia doesn’t exactly fall under the category of Latin American film. Though I could attempt to downplay the incongruity by saying that I saw the movie in a little cineclub in Buenos Aires (it won’t be getting full distribution down here because of some inopportune remarks made by the director at Cannes), I’m opting instead for a defense of intellectual promiscuity. And this may be just the film to start with.

One of my favorite things about this little cineclub is the way the films are introduced. An affable and generally knowledgeable gentleman associated with the club comes up and provides a bit of background information on the movie, and offers a few things to keep in mind while viewing. Not surprisingly, last night his remarks focused mainly on the title of the movie/ name of the planet on a collision course with earth. Melancholia, he reminded us, was not always exclusively associated with depression. Yes, the melas and the chole that comprise the word do indeed evoke the black humours of the clinically depressed. But there was, for centuries, another valence to the word, that of the clarity of vision that comes from withdrawn reflection – often as a fundamental part of the creative process.

A.O. Scott has already covered the connection between the way Justine (Dunst) is able to see the world and the melancholy that inflects her every movement (to Dunst’s credit, its weight is palpable even at the character’s most buoyant moments). My own lexical fixation took root in another term: gravity.

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where credit is due.

Nicanor Parra

Chilean “antipoet” (and physicist, and mathematician) Nicanor Parra was awarded the Premio Cervantes yesterday. One of the most prestigious in the Spanish language, the prize recognizes an author’s lifelong contribution to letters; there can be little question that, in the course of his 97 years, Parra has had a profound effect on the way poetry is both conceived and expressed. The antipoem: antiembellishments, antiniceties. Even, to a great extent, antimetaphor. It is the treatment of quotidian themes in a quotidian, and often satirical or even acerbic, register. Though he did not invent the concept, Parra’s insistence on combating the “sacred cows” and other “monsters” of the form (two terms he uses to describe his compatriot, Pablo Neruda) opened a space for a free verse that was, legitimately, free: of social and ideological taboos, of formal constraints, of the insistence on an elevated, authoritative register.

The news of the award has, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, gone largely unreported in the English-language press (ahem, NY Times, that’s directed at you), with a few notable exceptions like the CBC and France24 websites; more extensive coverage is provided by the cultural supplement Ñ and the EPA, both in Spanish. For a fuller picture, don’t miss Raúl Zurita’s excellent 2009 piece for BOMB, which abounds in descriptions like the following:

Parra’s vision was gradual. First he limited himself to the artistic, to the literary—antipoetry in its classical sense—checkmating anything else understood as literarily “superior.” Then, with his series of visual poems Artefactos (Artifacts), he annihilated sacred emblems of culture and suppressed, along the way, any idea of hierarchy by placing everything from pornography, to politics, to lyricism, to jokes, on the same plane. This included the medium of the book, which he literally exploded—the 1972 edition of Artefactos consisted of a box filled with hundreds of postcards destined to be slipped under the front doors of people’s homes, as if shards from a grenade.

Parra, for his part, has remained silent about the honor, refusing to give interviews on the grounds that he considers “every question to be an act of impertinence, of agression.” So we’ll have to let his work speak for him.

I Take Back Everything I’ve Said

Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
Generous reader
burn this book
It’s not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It’s not what I wanted to say.
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.
Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace, I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.
Maybe that’s all I am
But listen to my last word:
I take back everything I’ve said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I’ve said.

— translated by Miller Williams for New Directions

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